Leistikow's DVR Monday: Diagnosing Iowa's run-pass imbalance in loss to Northwestern

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Second-time starter Spencer Petras threw the football 50 times in Saturday’s 21-20 home loss to Northwestern, the most attempts by an Iowa quarterback since October of 2014.

That staggering statistic dates to Jake Rudock’s 56 attempts in a loss at Maryland, 75 Iowa games ago. C.J. Beathard never threw more than 40 passes in his 27 career starts. Nate Stanley threw 40-plus five times in 39 starts but was never asked to throw 50.

There’s no doubt that hindsight is 20/20 and Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz regrets calling 53 passes (three resulted in scrambles), 20 runs and one quarterback spike in a game Iowa at one time led 17-0.

This week’s DVR Monday column searches for answers to why Iowa threw the ball that much in falling to 0-2 and seeks solutions going forward.

Iowa went away from effective play-action passing after under-center runs weren’t working, and that made shotgun passes too predictable.

Petras completed four of his first five attempts out of under-center play-action for 59 yards, exactly what you want to see as an offensive coordinator. But after a gorgeous connection with Tyrone Tracy Jr. for 22 yards on the field-goal drive that gave Iowa a 20-7 lead in the second quarter, Iowa only attempted four more play-action passes the rest of the game.


Spencer Petras attempted 38 passes out of a shotgun formation against Northwestern and completed 20 of them for just 151 yards.

Probably because Iowa gained just 20 yards on 12 rushing attempts from under center for the day, and Ferentz was more comfortable putting Petras in more wide-open, shotgun formations to diminish the impact of Northwestern's talented linebackers. That’s not a good enough reason to stop play-action, but you can understand where he was coming from.

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It had to be frustrating that one of Ferentz's best play calls of the day worked perfectly... but got called back by an unnecessary block in the back by Alaric Jackson. A play-action screen pass to tight end Sam LaPorta would have gained 17 yards (with or without that flagged block) to Northwestern’s 27-yard line early in the fourth quarter. The penalty moved Iowa back to its own 46. Iowa wound up punting, and Ferentz didn’t come back to play-action the rest of the game.

Petras’ final play-action numbers: 5-for-8, 65 yards, one interception.

Petras’ shotgun numbers: 20-for-38, 151 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions.

Do the math, and that’s just 3.97 yards per play on shotgun passes. Meanwhile, Iowa averaged 5.88 yards on shotgun runs.

Ferentz's biggest mistake was not calling more running plays from the shotgun formation. The Hawkeyes picked up 47 yards on eight called runs out of shotgun, including Tyler Goodson’s explosive 15-yard touchdown and his spinning 13-yard gain on third-and-12. Ferentz called for shotgun formations 49 times; to only call for eight runs made the Hawkeyes way too predictable.

Ferentz called just one shotgun run in the fateful fourth quarter. Mekhi Sargent went for nine yards up the middle on the play, but Iowa's final 22 offensive snaps over four possessions didn't include a designed shotgun run.

On that note, Ferentz made another mistake not coming back to the “Wildcat” look it showed twice last week against Purdue.

The only time Iowa used Wildcat against the Wildcats, it worked. And it was a nice design. With Petras off the field, Goodson was the quarterback and stood between Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Sargent behind a seven-man line, with Brandon Smith flanked left as the lone wide receiver.

Upon receiving the shotgun snap, Goodson faked a handoff to Smith-Marsette, whose right-sweeping action drew linebackers Chris Bergin and Paddy Fisher out of the play. Goodson’s burst gained seven yards to the Northwestern 3.

Goodson looked adept at handling the ball, and it was a great way to use misdirection to make Northwestern’s talented linebackers less effective. But that first-quarter ploy wasn’t repeated, nor did Ferentz call a single running play to a wide receiver. Even some fake jet-sweep action would have been a useful wrinkle.

A side note on the shotgun conversation: Petras needs to do a better job of not "tipping" his intent to pass. He'll often retreat as the ball is hiked, which helps get him into a quicker drop but tells the defense he's throwing.

Fact check: True, Northwestern made a fourth-quarter adjustment to more frequently drop eight defenders into pass coverage.

The Wildcats did that 11 times in the final quarter with a one-point lead, and Petras didn’t handle it well. To Northwestern’s credit, it mixed in four-man rushes and blitzes, so the three-man rushes were unpredictable. Petras went 4-for-9 passing for 24 yards in the fourth quarter when the Wildcats rushed three (thus covering five receivers with eight defenders). He scrambled two other times for 11 yards.

Two crucial incompletions highlighted why the three-man rush worked: Because Petras was making decisions too quickly, even when there was minimal pass rush (as one would expect with a five-on-three blocking advantage).

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On third-and-5 from Northwestern’s 46 with just over two minutes to go, Petras was thrown off by the three-man rush. On the previous play, he had been blitzed. This time, there was no pressure but something scared him out of the pocket. He rolled right and threw the ball away.

Then on fourth-and-5, Northwestern got no pass rush but Petras hurried a throw to Nico Ragaini that never had a chance. In Petras’ defense, a Wildcat defender blatantly held Smith-Marsette (likely his first read) on a crossing route and a penalty wasn’t called.

It makes sense to end the offense conversation on Petras’ 50th and final pass attempt. After scrambling for 10 yards (a smart play against a three-man rush), Northwestern made another minor adjustment on the fly. It rushed three again, but this time had Bergin spy the quarterback run. Petras did get pressure from the right, which forced him to hurry a pass over the middle. It went off LaPorta’s hand and into the arms of linebacker Blake Gallagher for a clinching Northwestern interception.

Iowa's defense was well-positioned but Northwestern made too many clutch plays.

Northwestern was able to run the football 60 times (for just 2.4 yards a carry) because of its excellent work on third and fourth down.

Linebacker Seth Benson was exactly where he needed to be on a third-and-6 conversion to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, who made a diving catch for 12 yards on the next-to-last play of the first quarter with Northwestern trailing 17-0. That was a huge play, as it kick-started a chain reaction of unfortunate second-quarter events for Iowa.

Three plays later, on third-and-5, Peyton Ramsey scrambled for 21 yards to spur the Wildcats’ first touchdown drive.

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Northwestern’s second touchdown drive doesn’t happen without a fourth-and-3 conversion from Iowa’s 38. Ramsey found Kyric McGowan, who was walloped by Matt Hankins but held on for a 12-yard gain.

Two third-quarter, third-down connections to McGowan (both times for 17 yards) came with Riley Moss in tight coverage. 

Tip your cap to the Wildcats, who finished the day 12-for-21 converting third and fourth downs (57.1%). Iowa finished 8-for-20 (40%). That was a big difference. 

Some finishing observations …

For the second straight week, Iowa defensive end Chauncey Golston was clearly held without penalty in a crucial fourth-quarter moment. On a third-and-5 with just under six minutes left, Golston was grabbed by right guard Ethan Wiederkehr in what looked like a textbook holding call and was well-positioned to either sack or hurry Ramsey. With that extra bit of time, Ramsey found Chiaokhiao-Bowman for 16 yards along the left sideline. That conversion helped Northwestern chew up another minute of clock before punting and affected field position — pinning Iowa back at its own 13 with 4:45 remaining.

Had the holding been correctly called, Northwestern would have faced third-and-15 from its own 13. Sure, maybe the Wildcats convert, but I doubt Pat Fitzgerald would have been too chancy there after Ramsey’s previous third-down pass attempt was intercepted by Jack Koerner. The Hawkeyes probably would’ve gotten the ball back around their own 40-yard line after a punt. And with 5½ minutes of clock on their side, maybe there’s not as much frantic offensive panic.

Last week in a 24-20 loss at Purdue, a non-call on a Golston rush changed the complexion of the fourth quarter.

One last offensive gripe. Petras only attempted two downfield shots for the game, one to Smith and one to Smith-Marsette. Both were incomplete, but Iowa played right into Northwestern's hands by settling for too many underneath passes.

Underrated MVPs on the rewatch? Center Tyler Linderbaum is Iowa’s best offensive lineman and it’s not close. He was the highest-graded Hawkeye in the game by Pro Football Focus. … Jack Heflin’s strong play has been overshadowed by the dynamic exploits of fellow defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon. Iowa is lucky to have the grad transfer from Northern Illinois. He was Iowa's highest-graded PFF defender. … Terry Roberts had another great day on special teams, recovering a fumble and nearly blocking Northwestern’s final punt. Boy, he's really fast.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.